The Mic caught up with the enigmatic Baxter Dury at the beginning of lockdown in an effort to ascertain a sense of what lies beneath his captivating yet cool exterior.
Baxter Dury is that rarest of things: the child of a star, who has gone on to become a name in his own right. The son of Ian Dury (of The Blockheads fame), Baxter’s career could perhaps be read as an attempt to distance himself from his father’s shadow – and it has been rather effective. Listening to The Night Chancers, Baxter’s latest album, Dury Sr. never even crosses the mind. Instead, across a series of cinematic vignettes, the focus is always with Baxter, a film camera peering over his shoulder. He strikes as a sort of Cockney Serge Gainsbourg in an Italian suit, sauntering through these hazy encounters.
I’m chatting with Baxter via phone call, the result of the ongoing lockdown, which was in its first week when we spoke. I found him in his Hammersmith apartment – he’s recently moved back to his childhood home, and is disarmingly humble: “yeah it’s not so bad where I am, I’ve got a nice view, and a big enough place”. Much like the rest of us, Baxter has been attempting to fill his time in lockdown with productive activities, too. “I’ve got a prison exercise corner, I can practice my piano”, he says, although he doesn’t consider his skills to be improving. “I think it’s inherently bad, I must be technically capped somewhere”.
Baxter’s also been occupying himself by performing via livestream, along with, it seems, the entire rest of the music world. But, in typical fashion, he’s quite self-effacing about the whole thing. “Yeah that was quite raw, wasn’t it? I fucked that one up. It was quite nerve-wracking, actually. I don’t usually get nervous, but I was like ‘woah, I don’t like this’”. Indeed, he’s not overly enamoured with livestreams as a medium. “Too many people have been doing it. I’m not surprised, but then it’s a bit of a poor format, isn’t it, really”, Baxter expands. “People start wearing funny hats, and feathers, and sunglasses in their house, thinking they’re really helping, and I’m wondering if they really are…”. But he’s quick to point out that he may be “just a cynic”.
"Where it lands in the charts, and all that other stuff, is kinda pointless. Whatever happens to it, it's nice that everyone liked it”.
He’s just released The Night Chancers, the follow-up to 2017’s critically-acclaimed Prince Of Tears, and I asked Baxter what his perception of the response had been. “Critically, it’s been great, and that’s good I guess”, he deadpans. “I mean, it’s hard to measure all the other stuff, cause it’s all just pointless. Where it lands in the charts, and all that other stuff, is kinda pointless. Whatever happens to it, it's nice that everyone liked it”. And like it everyone has. The Night Chancers ended up topping the Record Store Charts, and garnered rave reviews. But I found myself wondering – if none of that matters to Baxter, is there anyone whose opinion he trusts? “Err, not really, I sort of trust everyone, and don’t trust everyone. Everyone’s a blank canvas for my own neuroses, if you see what I mean, so I put people in place that I trust for the moment, just so I get on, but I only trust myself really”, he laughs. “I do it all for me. I have people around me who are quite strong-minded, who go ‘yeah, that’s good’ and I go ‘okay!’, and I won’t over-labour something, or get stuck”.
Baxter does have quite the bank of expert opinions to draw upon if necessary. He’s surrounded by the great and the good of the music world, with Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods turning up on his last record, and Jarvis Cocker on remix duties. But The Night Chancers has a conspicuous lack of features, a choice that Baxter is quick to point out was entirely incidental. “It just comes out the way it is, it’s quite an innocent procedure. There wasn’t any room for anyone else”. Baxter clarifies that he “didn’t wanna exercise the famous mate card”, feeling that it “takes away the focus a bit. Depersonalises it, sometimes”. I couldn’t resist but ask, though, whether any of the “famous mates” had been in touch with their opinions on the record? “Oh yeah, they’re quite nerdy, most people that are good at music, so they’re very clear; they want you to tell them, and they’ll tell you, you know”. Apparently Baxter receives reams of feedback: “From someone like Jarvis, it’s amazing, he’ll just write a whole page of exactly how he feels, in so much detail”.
The focus inevitably turns to what comes next. But Baxter’s quite cagey, saying he’ll “apply some attention to that soon”. By his own admission, he’s fatigued with his current conceit, confessing that “the whole ‘a man over music’ thing is a bit masculinised, man-talk … I was thinking that’s been a bit laboured, itself”. He continues, dry as ever: “maybe, I should try and sing a bit, get some songs going?” But the next album isn’t the only thing occupying Baxter’s mind – he’s writing a book. “Yeah, I am in the process, which is quite a good thing, I’ve got that schedule”. Despite the structure writing gives his day, it is still, in Baxter’s own words, “fucking hard”. “I found it impossibly hard before the world went into apocalypse, and now I’m thinking ‘oh this is fantastic, I’ll just do this’. So now I’m giving up on my middle-class moaning and getting on with it”.
The book is semi-autobiographical, centring around two years of his childhood. Being the child of a star never lends itself to a quiet upbringing, and Baxter’s was no different. He lived with “a big crazy friend of dad’s” called the ‘Sulphate Strangler’, with whom he bonded – in his words, “a rite of passage”. “I see it like E.T.”, he laughs, “but it’s not like E.T. It’s just about the beast and the boy bonding, really, and I try and write it as accurately as I can, but it’s probably a bit impressionistic. I dunno how much you remember of all these things”. But soon enough, Baxter is out of his reverie and drolly disparaging his process once more: “I’ve got all the bullet points, and it’s just filling it up”.
'He cuts a strange, slightly melancholy figure – it’s hard not to get the sense that he doesn’t let just anybody in'.
Baxter Dury remains an intriguing character. Polite to a fault, his practised cordiality gives him a voice that’s one of the easiest on the ear I’ve ever encountered. Yet, there’s a sense that I’m no closer to understanding what makes him tick than I was to begin with. He cuts a strange, slightly melancholy figure – it’s hard not to get the sense that he doesn’t let just anybody in. He talks about collaborators with the utmost respect, but also a kind of guarded distance: “Musically, people come and do some stuff, but I sort of control it all, it’s my thing”. Then again, he discounts his own songwriting by the same brush, stating that he “churned this one out really quickly. I don’t really think about it”. I think I could have spent hours with Baxter and had a perfectly pleasant time, and not gotten any closer to the essence of his art.
But, in many ways, I’m glad I didn’t. The Night Chancers is many things, but what it is not is a window into its creator’s mind. He’s always observing events with a slightly detached air; there may be a knowing glance to the audience, but that’s all we’ll get. And yet, despite not feeling any closer to this suave, slightly maudlin figure, we find ourselves unable to look away. Baxter Dury is a showman in every sense of the word, but his is an act that seemingly never stops.